How highlight in Word works

Learn how to highlight in Word, how to remove highlight / unhighlight in Word, find and replace highlight, etc.

In Word, you can highlight text on the screen much like you can highlight text on paper using a highlighter. In this article, you will find general information about how highlight in Word works. The basic information about highlight applies to both the built-in highlight functionality and the functionality of the DocTools HighlightManager add-in.

There is no difference between highlight added using the DocTools HighlightManager add-in and using the built-in highlight functionality in Word. The difference is that DocTools HighlightManager add-in makes the work much faster and more flexible.

15 available highlight colors

Word offers 15 highlight colors. For years, Word users have asked for more colors or the option to customize highlight colors, but so far with no luck.

Word highlight colors and their names

Figure 1. Word highlight colors and their names.

Many of the 15 highlight colors available are too dark to use in most cases – for example, you can't read black text on any of the darkest highlight colors.

Personally, I use yellowbright greenturquoise and, in a few cases, red. The colors are rather glaring but I find they are the only ones that work.

Even if the Gray 25% is light enough to read the text, I don't use it since it is impossible to distinguish it from selected text and from fields with field shading turned on.

In addition to the 15 highlight colors, there is a No Color which removes highlight.

How to show or hide highlight on screen and in print

  • Highlight is neither font formatting nor paragraph formatting
  • Highlight in Word documents is placed in its own layer that you can either show or hide

Even if it may look so, highlight in Word is not applied as font formatting or paragraph formatting like e.g. color shading. If you check the formatting of highlighted text, you will not see the highlight listed anywhere.

The display of highlight is managed via an option in Word:

  • To show highlight both on the screen and in print, turn ON File Options Display Show highlighter marks. See Figure 2 below.
  • To hide highlight both on the screen and in print, turn OFF File Options Display Show highlighter marks. See Figure 2 below.

Note that the Show highlighter marks setting is a global Word setting. It applies to all documents.

When you turn off Show highlighter marks, any highlight in documents will only be hidden, not removed. As soon as you turn on the setting, the highlight will appear again, if any. The highlight will also be visible if the document is opened on another computer with the setting turned on. 

To display highlight on the screen and in print, turn on Show highlighter marks

Figure 2. To show highlight on the screen and in print, turn on Show highlighter marks.

When you select a highlight color using the built-in functionality of Word, that color will be set as the default highlight color, i.e. the same color will be applied the next time you click the Text Highlight Color icon in the Home tab of the Ribbon or in the Mini Toolbar.

As opposed to the built-in functionality, the selection of a specific highlight color using the Apply Highlight command in the DocTools HighlightManager add-in will not affect your next highlight operation. The add-in lets you apply any highlight color with a click.

How to print without highlight

As explained above, you can turn highlight on and off, without removing the highlight from the document.

To print without highlight but keep the highlight in the document:

  1. Turn off display of highlight as explained above (see Figure 2).
  2. Print.
  3. Turn highlight on again, if you want.

In the DocTools HighlightManager add-in, you will find a command for quickly turning on and off the display of highlight instead of digging deep into the Word Options dialog box.

Highlight and track changes

Changing highlight in a document is not registered by track changes. Even if track changes is on, Word will not regard a highlight change as a revision.

The difference between highlight color and shading color

You should be aware of the difference between highlight and shading.

As mentioned above, the number of highlight colors is limited. On the other hand, you can apply any color of your choice via the Shading tools in Word. This may make users want to use shading instead of highlight in order to get access to more colors. However, the two types of coloring work in totally different ways.

As explained above, highlight in Word is neither font formatting nor paragraph formatting. The highlight lives in its own layer in Word and can be turned on or off for all content. The same is not possible with shading.

If you apply a shading color to content using a color from one of the Shading tools in Word or via the Borders and Shading dialog box, that color is applied as formatting of text, paragraphs, table cells or entire tables.

This means that the shading is applied as a characteristic or an attribute of the text, paragraph, table cell or table itself.

You can't turn on and off shading for an entire document as you can with highlight. You can easily select all and set the shading to No Color. However, once you have removed the shading, you can't easily apply it again if spread across the entire document. This means that it may not necessarily be a good idea to use shading as a substitute for highlight.

Highlight is often used as a temporary marking of content, e.g. during the editing process. Shading may more often be used as permanent formatting that is meant to remain in the finished document.

A color selected from a Shading palette is either font, paragraph, or table formatting

Figure 3. A color selected from a Shading palette is either font, paragraph, or table formatting.

A shading color you apply via a Shading palette or via the Borders and Shading dialog box is applied as one of the following types of formatting depending on the conditions and what you select:

  • Font formatting applied to text
  • Paragraph formatting applied to entire paragraph(s)
  • Table cell formatting applied to entire table cell(s)
  • Table formatting applied to entire table(s)

How to highlight in Word using the built-in functionality

You can apply highlight in different ways using the built-in functionality in Word. See METHODs 1-4 below. When you apply highlight to selected text in Word using the built-in methods described below, Word doesn't retain the selection but collapses the selection so the insertion point is placed after the selection afterwards. Since you may often want to apply e.g. formatting to the same selection immediately after applying highlight, this is not always practical.

The DocTools HighlightManager add-in lets you decide whether or not to keep the selection after highlighting text. It can help you save time. 

METHOD 1 – How to highlight selected text via the Ribbon

  1. Select the text to be highlighted.
  2. Select Home tab > click the arrow in Text Highlight Color icon and click the desired highlight color. The currently selected color works as the default highlight color and is shown in the icon. If you want to apply that color, you can just click the icon. (To remove highlight, select No Color).
How to highlight in Word – the Text Highlight Color options in the Home tab in the Ribbon

Figure 4. The Text Highlight Color options in the Home tab in the Ribbon.

What is the default highlight color in Word?

The default highlight color in Word is the highlight color currently shown in the Text Highlight Color icon.

When you click one of the 15 colors or No Color, that color becomes the default highlight color.

The default highlight color will automatically be used by Word for the next highlight unless you select another color.

The DocTools HighlightManager add-in lets you use any highlight color without changing the default highlight color.

METHOD 2 – How to highlight selected text via the Mini Toolbar

If you have the Mini Toolbar enabled, you can also apply highlight via that toolbar:

  1. Select the text to be highlighted.
  2. In the Mini Toolbar that appears when you have selected text, click the arrow in the Text Highlight Color icon and click the desired highlight color. The currently selected color works as the default highlight color and is shown in the icon. If you want to apply that color, you can just click the icon. (To remove highlight, select No Color).

The highlight tools in the Mini Toolbar are identical to the ones on the Home tab in the Ribbon.

The Mini Toolbar only appears when you have selected text and if, at the same time, the option File > OptionsGeneral > Show Mini Toolbar on selection is turned on. See Figure 5 below.

The Mini Toolbar is only shown if the Show Mini Toolbar on selection option is turned on.

Figure 5 The Mini Toolbar is only shown if the Show Mini Toolbar on selection option is turned on.

The Text Highlight Color options in the Mini Toolbar are the same as in the Home tab of the Ribbon

Figure 6. The Text Highlight Color options in the Mini Toolbar are the same as in the Home tab of the Ribbon.

METHOD 3 – How to highlight using a shortcut

Word has a default shortcut assigned to highlight:

  • Alt+Ctrl+H 

You can both apply highlight and remove highlight using the Alt-Ctrl-H shortcut. Note that this shortcut only works with the currently selected default highlight color so you still have to first make sure the desired color has been selected, either via the Home tab or the Mini Toolbar.

As opposed to how the Alt-Ctrl+H shortcut works, the DocTools HighlightManager add-in lets you assign shortcuts to each individual highlight color – customizable shortcuts have been assigned to the most useful highlight colors beforehand so they are ready for use at once. This means that the add-in makes it possible to apply any highlight color simply by pressing a keyboard shortcut without first switching color.

How the Alt+Ctrl+H shortcut works

You must select text before pressing the Alt+Ctrl+H shortcut. What happens when you press the shortcut depends on the situation. See the examples below:

Shortcut to highlight in Word – The gray text is selected – no highlight has been applied beforehand

Figure 7. No highlight applied to the selection beforehand.

EXAMPLE 1
If the selected text is not highlighted beforehand, Alt+Ctrl+H applies the highlight color that is currently selected as the default highlight color in Home tab > Text Highlight Color.

NOTE: If the currently selected default color is No Color, no highlight will be applied even if you press the shortcut.

The yellow text is selected – no highlight has been applied beforehand

Figure 8. Entire selection highlighted beforehand.

EXAMPLE 2
If the entire selected text is already highlighted (same color or mixed colors), Alt+Ctrl+H removes the highlight. This means that it works as a toggle: It adds or removes highlight depending of the selection.

The gray, yellow and green text is selected – highlight has been applied to part of the text beforehand

Figure 9. The selected text is partly highlighted beforehand.

EXAMPLE 3
If the selected text is partly highlighted, i.e. some of the text is highlighted and other is not, Alt+Ctrl+H applies the highlight color that is currently selected as the default highlight color in Home tab > Text Highlight Color.

NOTE: If the currently selected default color is No Color, Alt+Ctrl+H removes highlight from the selection.

METHOD 4 – How to highlight without first selecting text

If you click the Text Highlight Color icon on the Home tab or in the Mini Toolbar without first selecting text, the cursor changes to the icon shown below (enlarged here). You can then highlight text by dragging across the text that is to be highlighted.

NOTE: If you drag across text that is already highlighted, the highlight will be removed.

Highlighter icon

Figure 10. Highlighter icon

To exit the highlighter mode, do one of the following:
Press the Escape key OR
Click the Text Highlight Color icon on the Home tab or in the Mini Toolbar OR
Select Stop Highlighting from the Text Highlight Color tools on the Home tab or in the Mini Toolbar.

Note that the DocTools HighlightManager add-in lets you apply any highlight color to a paragraph without first selecting the entire paragraph – you only need to press a shortcut.

How to unhighlight in Word

Unhighlight is the same as removing highlight. See below.

How to remove highlight in Word

Getting rid of highlight may be referred to as either removing highlight or unhighlight.

To get rid of highlight in Word – or unhighlight – you can follow the steps described for applying highlight using METHOD 1, METHOD 2, METHOD 3 or METHOD 4 above but with the difference, that you select No Color instead of one of the 15 colors.

The DocTools HighlightManager add-in provides tools that let you quickly remove highlight either from the selection or from all paragraph(s) that are fully or partly included in the selection. This means that you don't need to spend time on first selecting the entire paragraphs to remove highlight.

How to remove highlight from a paragraph number or bullet

Paragraph marks and trailing spaces (spaces at the end of a paragraph) never show highlight. However, they may be highlighted – but you can't see it.

If only the number or bullet of a paragraph is highlighted, it is because the paragraph mark of that paragraph is highlighted.

To remove highlight from a number or from a bullet, select the paragraph mark and remove the highlight. You can also select the entire paragraph or the last part of the paragraph as long as you make sure the paragraph mark is included in the selection. Then the highlight will disappear from the number/bullet. See the illustration below.

TIP: Turn on formatting marks (Ctrl+Shift+8) so you can see the paragraph marks and other non-printing characters. Paragraph marks look like this: ¶

To remove highlight from a number or bullet, select the paragraph mark and unhighlight it

Figure 11. To remove highlight from a number or bullet, select the paragraph mark and unhighlight it.

The DocTools HighlightManager add-in provides a tool that lets you quickly remove highlight from numbered or bulleted paragraphs. You only need to click a button to remove highlight from any bullet or number in the selection or in the entire document.

How to remove light yellow highlight that does not disappear when selecting No Color

You may experience that you open a document in which some areas are highlighted with a light or pale yellow color (see figure 12 below). The color differs from the bright yellow color in the highlight color palette. If you try to remove the light, yellow highlight by selecting No Color from the highlight palette, nothing happens.

Such pale, yellow highlight is most likely a result of the document being protected. The yellow color is used to show which areas of the document you can edit. You can turn off the highlight but it will be turned on again if you close and reopen the document. As opposed to normal highlight colors, the light, yellow color does not print. It is shown on the screen only.

Example of highlight that shows which areas you can edit in a protected document

Figure 12. Example of light, yellow highlight that shows which areas you can edit in a protected document.

To remove the light yellow highlight:

  1. In the Ribbon, select Review tab > Restrict Editing.
  2. In the Restrict Editing pane that opens, turn off Highlight the regions I can edit. See figure 13 below.

You can also open the Restrict Editing pane from the Developer tab > Restrict Editing.

o remove the light, yellow highlight, turn off Highlight the regions I can edit

Figure 13. To remove the light, yellow highlight, turn off Highlight the regions I can edit.

How to replace highlight colors in a document

You can use Find in Word to search for highlight. You can also use Find and Replace to e.g. search for highlight and remove it or to apply highlight to a search string – or to replace one highlight color with another. See the examples below about how you can use Find and Find and Replace in relation to highlight.

How to find highlight

As you will learn below, the built-in functionality of Word does not let you search for a specific highlight color. As opposed to that, the DocTools HighlightManager add-in lets you find any specific highlight color.

Word does not let you search for specific highlight colors.

If two or more paragraphs in succession are highlighted, Word will not find them as one instance of highlight. Word interprets each paragraph as one instance of highlighting. This means that Word finds highlight in one paragraph at a time.

To find highlight in Word using the Find and Replace dialog box:

  1. Press Ctrl+H to open the Find and Replace dialog box. If you only want to find highlight, you can use the Find tab in the dialog box. If you want to replace highlight, make sure the Replace tab is selected.
  2. To find highlight, make sure the insertion point is in the Find what field.
  3. To expand the dialog box so all options are shown, click the More button.
  4. Select Format (bottom of dialog box) > Highlight. The word "Highlight" will now be shown below the Find what field. See Figure 15 below.
  5. If you want to find highlight no matter the text, leave the Find what field empty, otherwise enter the relevant text.
  6. Add other search criteria as needed and use the buttons in the dialog box to find and/or replace.

TIP: You can find both Highlight and Not highlight
If you select Highlight from the Format menu in the Find and Replace dialog box twice, the text below the Find what or Replace with field changes from Highlight to Not highlight. See Figure 15 below.

This means that you can search for and replace with both highlight and no highlight.

If you select Format > Highlight a third time, Not highlight is cleared.

To clear all Format criteria from the Find what or Replace with field, click in the relevant field, then click the No Formatting button. Alternatively, press Ctrl+Spacebar to clear the formatting.

The Find and Replace dialog box lets you search for or replace withHighlight

Figure 14. The Find and Replace dialog box lets you search for or replace with Highlight.

How to remove highlight in Word – Example: You can search for Highlight and replace with Not Highlight

Figure 15. Example: You can search for Highlight and replace with Not Highlight.

How to replace one highlight color with another

You can use the Find and Replace command to replace one highlight color with another. To do this:

  1. Select the new highlight color you want as the default highlight color (via the Text Highlight Color in the Home tab or the Mini Toolbar).
  2. Press Ctrl+H to open the Find and Replace dialog box.
  3. In both Find what and Replace with, add Highlight (see How to find highlight above for help. Leave the text fields empty unless you want to search for specific text and/or replace with other text.
  4. If you want to replace any highlight, no matter the color, with the new color, click Replace All. If you only want to replace a specific color, use the Find Next button and click Replace only if relevant – repeat Find Next.

As opposed to the built-in functionality in Word, the DocTools HighlightManager add-in lets you find any specific highlight color and replace it with any other highlight color, leaving all other colors unchanged.

The DocTools HighlightManager add-in also has a Find command that finds the next highlight in the document without you needing to set up the search in the Find or Find and Replace dialog box.

How to copy only the highlighted text to another document

The built-in functionality of Word does not have a special feature for copying only highlighted text.

You could save a copy of the document and use Find and Replace to delete all text that is not highlighted. To do that:

  1. Press Ctrl+H to open the Find and Replace dialog box.
  2. Click in the Find what field and select Format > Highlight twice until the text Not highlight is shown below the field. Leave the field empty.
  3. In the Replace with field, type ^p in the field.
    The ^p replaces the found non-highlighted text with a paragraph mark. This will split the remaining highlighted text in paragraphs. Otherwise, the result could be that many highlighted instances end in one paragraph.
  4. Click Replace All.

The result may not always be useful since all the highlighted text remains with context.

The DocTools HighlightManager add-in includes a command for extracting highlight to a new document. Using that command, you can quickly create a document that includes the highlight, incl. metadata about each found instance.

Troubleshooting highlight

PROBLEM 1 – Highlight it is not visible on the screen

If you apply a highlight color to selected text and no color appears, the problem is likely to be one of the following:

  • You have selected No Color instead of a color.
  • The selection if of a type that can't be highlighted.
  • The Show highlighter marks setting is turned OFF. See how to turn on highlight marks.

PROBLEM 2 – The color doesn't disappear when you attempt to remove highlight

If you select text that seems to be highlighted and try to remove the highlight and if this does not make the color go away, the reason may be that it is not highlight but one of the following:

  • The color is color shading
  • The color is light yellow and is showing which areas you can edit in a protected document
  • The color is light gray field shading making it possible to distinguish fields from normal text

See below for help on how to remove the three types of color.

How to remove color shading

  1. Selected the text from which you want to remove the color shading.
  2. Select Home tab > Paragraph group > Shading menu > No Color.

Note that shading can be applied to part of a paragraph, entire paragraphs, table cells, or entire tables. However, selecting No Color from the Paragraph group can remove shading from any of the types.

How to remove the light yellow color from a protected document

See how you remove light yellow highlight from a protected document above.

How to remove gray field shading

In documents with fields, I recommend having field shading set to always be displayed. The shading is visible on the screen only and does not print (more information about field shading). However, you can turn off field shading or set it to be displayed only on field(s) that are selected:

  1. Select File > Options > Advanced.
  2. In the Show document content group, select Field shading > Never or When selected.
  3. Click OK.
Example of a field with fields shading

Figure 16. Example of a field with fields shading.

 I strongly recommend having field shading shown always. If you can't distinguish fields from other content, you risk making manual changes inside fields. The result will be that such changes are gone when you update fields.

PROBLEM 3 – No highlight is applied when pressing Alt+Ctrl+H

If you press Alt+Ctrl+H and nothing happens, the problem is likely to be one of the following:

  • You have not selected any text or the selection if of a type that can't be highlighted.
  • The currently selected highlight color in Home tab > Text Highlight Color is No Color,

How to apply or remove highlight via macros (VBA)

Below, you will find small examples of macro code related to highlight. If you record a macro in Word to find out what code to use for highlighting, the result is macro code that also changes the default highlight color to the color you apply. As you will see in the code samples below, you can apply or remove highlight via VBA without changing the default color. 

EXAMPLE 1: Apply yellow highlight to the selection without changing the default highlight color that is shown in the Text Highlight Color icon:

Selection.Range.HighlightColorIndex = wdYellow

EXAMPLE 2: Remove highlight from the selection without changing the default highlight color that is shown in the Text Highlight Color icon:

Selection.Range.HighlightColorIndex = wdNoHighlight

EXAMPLE 3: Select bright green as the default highlight color that will be shown in the Text Highlight Color icon: 

Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdBrightGreen
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Highlight can be useful in many Word documents, not least during the editing process. This article has explained how highlight in Word works. You have learnt how to highlight, how to remove highlight / unhighlight, how to solve different problems with highlight, etc. I hope this article helps you work more efficiently with highlight in Word.